Osteoporosis is a condition that occurs when bone mass deteriorates to the point that our bones become weaker and more brittle. These more fragile bones have a higher likelihood of developing fractures and breaks.
Why does osteoporosis occur?
Decreased bone mass is a natural phenomenon of aging. Younger people tend to break down and replace bone mass at a relatively equal rate. The broken-down bone tissue is resorbed into our bodies and new bone tissue is created. Throughout our childhood and teen years, our bodies actually create more bone mass than they break down. But around the age of 30, bone mass begins to break down at a higher rate than new bone mass is created. This is why it is so important to pay attention to osteoporosis prevention in your younger years; it helps you build up the greatest bone mass possible.
Who is most likely to get osteoporosis?
Resorption of bone mass peaks in the first few years after menopause, making women more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. Since senior bones break down at a higher rate than they rebuild, the elderly are more at risk. Thinner, finer-boned people are also more at risk, perhaps because they have less bone mass overall. A family history of osteoporosis also seems to play a part. So if Grandma had a hip fracture, Mom is more likely to have one herself. Certain medications, including cancer medications and steroids, may reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Some conditions, including breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and diabetes can also affect bone mass.
Does lifestyle play a role?
While you can’t control the above risk factors, lifestyle also helps determine whether a person develops osteoporosis. Our bodies require both calcium and vitamin D to build healthy bones. Consuming enough of these nutrients in your younger years will ensure that your bones are as strong as possible. Regular exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise, can also help strengthen the bones. On the other hand, smoking and excessive alcohol intake tend to increase the rate at which bone mass is lost.
What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?
Unfortunately, there are often no symptoms of osteoporosis. Often, the first sign that someone has weakened bones is a fall that causes a hip or wrist fracture. An elderly person may develop a hunched back, or measure a few inches shorter at a routine checkup. This may be due to collapsed vertebrae or tiny fractures in the spinal column which cause the spine to develop a curve.
What tests are available for osteoporosis?
A doctor can run a bone density test to determine how much bone mass your loved one has. This test typically focuses on the bones at the hip, spine, wrist, heel, spinal column, and the bones in the fingers. The test is quick and non-invasive. Afterwards, the doctor will be able to give you an idea of how likely your loved one is to develop problems due to osteoporosis.
How is osteoporosis treated?
Osteoporosis is treated in several ways. There are medications available that can slow or stop loss of bone mass. Dietary measures, such as increasing the calcium and vitamin D in your loved one’s diet, will keep their bone mass as high as possible. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), and fish with edible bones. Also, look for calcium-fortified juices, cereals, and breads. Supplements may be necessary to ensure proper intake. Vitamin D, which our bodies make in response to sunlight, has been shown to enhance calcium absorption. If your loved one spends time outside each day, they may already get sufficient vitamin D. But if they are house-bound, or live at a high altitude, they should ask their doctor about vitamin D supplements.
Weight bearing exercises can strengthen your loved one’s remaining bone mass and reduce the risk of fracture. Attention should be paid to home safety as well. Remove tripping hazards, install railings and grab bars as needed, and encourage Mom to wear sturdy shoes with good grips. Reducing the risk of falls will reduce the risk of fractures, thereby reducing the effect osteoporosis has on your loved one’s life.